Elegant fusion at Starfish
Nancy Wilhelm has taken Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian and Thai food and successfully put them all under one roof. Her new restaurant is called Starfish, and it opened in June 2011 in the Aliso Creek Shopping Center.
Wilhelm, owner of foodie favorite Tabu Grill just up Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, calls her Starfish menu Amerasian, "American renditions of classic Asian cuisine."
Wilhelm's executive chef is up-and-comer Jarvis Yuan, who grew up in the kitchens of his father's Bay Area Chinese restaurants.
Don't let the strip-mall location scare you away.
The second you walk through Starfish's turquoise door, you are transported into a handsome, sleek dining space with a Vegas-y vibe – the hip side of Vegas. The décor is art deco Asian. A horseshoe bar dominates the main room. One of the walls is lined with high tufted-leather banquette booths in dreamy turquoise. The tables are black lacquer. The windows are covered with lattice. The lighting is dim and moody. The music is upbeat but relaxing. It's across the street from the luxury oceanfront Montage Resort.
Starfish is only open for dinner. I went on two weeknights fairly early, and got right in.
You can go big at Starfish – pay $34, say, for Ginger Scallion Shaking Beef, which revolves around filet mignon. Or you can keep the check reasonable. The Korean galbi tacos, for instance, are possibly my favorite item on the menu and cost $8 for two.
The mini corn tortillas taste homemade and are stuffed with tender slices of barbecued, sesame-soy-seasoned flat iron steak and pickled daikon radish. The tacos are topped with a spicy Korean gochujang aioli.
I also recommend the Wagyu "Banh Mi" Sliders, two for $9. Juicy, Vietnamese-seasoned Kobe beef patties are served on sweet baked mini buns, which arrive soft and warm. They're topped with pickled root vegetable and spicy aioli.
There are a dozen small plates on the menu, plus a selection of rolls, noodles, salads and raw bar items.
I like the Saigon Summer Roll, a fat wrap stuffed with vermicelli rice noodles, grilled asparagus, herbs and wild gulf prawns. The roll is chopped into pieces, and spicy roasted peanut hoisin sauce decorates the plate for wiping up.
I also try the Crispy Spring Rolls (two for $6), filled with grilled organic chicken breast and jalapenos and served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.
The Cambodian Cucumber Salad ($7) is a simple, fresh plate of coin-size Persian cucumber slices and garlic-roasted baby heirloom tomatoes tossed in a lightly sweetened citrus crab paste dressing with a French dressing flavor.
One of the house specialties is the garlic noodles ($8), a plate of angel-hair-thin egg noodles tossed with wild mushroom bits, bean sprouts and Thai basil. You can add protein to any dish, by the way. I throw in some grilled organic chicken breast for $4.
Another house specialty and one I will definitely go back for is the baby back ribs. I get the half-rack ($18). The katsu-glazed pork ribs arrive stacked on a plate. The ribs are dry- rubbed with cinnamon and cloves before being grilled, baked and slathered with house-made barbecue sauce. They are sweet and spicy and sticky and falling-off-the-bone tender with fabulous flavors. They come with a crunchy Asian slaw and wet towelettes.
There are other things on the menu I want to go back to try. One is the roasted sweet yam with uni compound butter and pecorino cheese ($5). Starfish has a fish of the day with three preparations to choose from, including steamed in banana leaf and served with lemongrass rice pilaf and red or green curry.
Starfish also takes cocktails seriously. There is a selection of hand-muddled cocktails with exotic infusions like gogi blossoms.
The beer list is small but respectable with two drafts. I watch one man walk out because they don't have Budweiser.
I consider telling him he isn't in Kansas anymore.
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